Yahya postpones Assembly and accelerates chaos

Civilian cabinet dissolved and military steps outlined to curb Bengali resistance

On 21 February 1971 - the 19th anniversary of Ekushey February - Sheikh Mujib stood at the Shaheed Minar, in Dhaka, the symbol of Language Movement martyrdom, to restate his commitment to federalism based on the Six-Point. He also declared that Bengalis must prepare to respond to any plot against their rights and interests. On the same day, in the western wing, President Yahya dissolved his civilian cabinet and the army took full control of the government.

The next day, he summoned a meeting of close aides at Rawalpindi, West Pakistan, which was attended by the General Hamid Khan, Lt. General Pirzada and all provincial governors, including Vice Admiral Syed Mohammad Ahsan, the soft-spoken Governor of East Pakistan. This was to be one of the last meeting over the issue of East Pakistan.

From the very composition of the meeting the agenda and possible outcome became predictable. However, a report said that the participants, especially Governor Admiral Ahsan, were told in clear terms that if Mujib did not show flexibility on his six-point programme, the planned action [presumably Operation Blitz] should follow. For that purpose extra troops were promised. Apparently there was no hope left for any change at a stage when the Bengali people only knew 'Joi Bangla'.

Dawn (Pakistan)

  • S. M. (Syed Mohammad) Ahsan ()

This high level government meeting was descibed by Admiral Ahsan as "tense", where the atmosphere was highly "anti-bengali", with no representation from East Pakistan in the policy and decision-making. During the negotiations, as their suspicions of the fidelity and trustworthiness of the Awami League leadership were aroused, a core group of army officers started to think in terms of a "military solution according to plan". Participants, especially Governor Admiral Ahsan, were told in clear terms that if Sheikh Mujib did not show flexibility on his Six-Point programme, the planned action should follow. Extra troops were promised to achieve this purpose.

On arrival in Rawalpindi I was alarmed to notice the high tide of militarism flowing turbulently... There was open talk of a military solution according to plan. I was caught quite unaware in this atmosphere for I know of no military solution which could possibly solve whatever crisis was supposed to be impending in the minds of the authorities.

Admiral Ahsan describe the hostile mood of the military leadership when they decided to postpone the assembly session and launch a military operation in the eastern province

Apparently there was no hope left for any change at a stage when the Bengali people only knew 'Joi Bangla' (Long live Bengal).

Dawn (Pakistan)

When asked about his view on the situation, Admiral Ahsan, a British army veteran and a former military secretary (ADC) to Quaid-i-Azam Jinnah, openly expressed opposition to any military armed action. He was the only naval officer in the meeting which was full of Army and Air Force's generals. Because of his continuous objections to the planned military plan, Admiral Ahsan became highly unpopular and his counterparts and colleagues called him "difficult" and "sold to the Bengalis".

The president presided over the meeting of the governors and martial law administrators attended as usual by the military and the civilian officers of the intelligence agencies. It is relevant to record that among the tribe of governors and MLAs I was the only non-army governor and the only retired officer in the midst of active service men. I was the only person, though a non-Bengali, who had to represent the sentiments of 70 million Bengalis to a completely West Pakistani generalship. During the past 17 months, in meetings and conferences, my brief ran counter to the cut-and-dried solutions of West Pakistan representatives and civil servants. The president invariably gave decisions which accommodated East Pakistan's viewpoint, at least partially. This made me unpopular with my colleagues who probably thought I was 'difficult' at best and 'sold' to the Bengalis at worst.

Ahsan describe the atmosphere at a crucial high-level meeting in Rawalpindi on 22 February 1971

Disheartened and isolated by his colleagues, Admiral Ahsan returned to East Pakistan. He met with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and informed him about the latest grave development.

Though the meeting remained futile, it shook Mujib. After the meeting he appeared depressed and speechless. Perhaps Ahsan illustrated what army action meant. He could foresee destruction all around.

While leaders in West Pakistan were making various predictions, the situation in East Pakistan was very disconsolate. Mujib feared the worst and had expressed some kind of flexibility but the Awami League activists were overzealous and hoped that with street power they would cow down Islamabad.

Dawn (Pakistan)

Awami League issue draft Constitution

On 24 February 1971, Sheikh Mujib called a press conference to declare that the people of East Pakistan would fight to safeguard their democratic rights and to establish self-rule. Two days later, he warned Governor Admiral Ahsan that the postponement of the National Assembly session would create a tragic and dangerous situation.

Awami League continued working on the proposed constitution and, showing the federal government their roadmap, announced the draft constitution on 27 February 1971. Sheikh Mujib had offered the military a compromise plan, which would have turned Pakistan de facto into a confederation, but would have left the final shape of the state to future negotiations between the two wings. This, Sheikh Mujib hoped, would allow the National Assembly to convene.

Unlike previous constitutions prepared in West Pakistan, the Awami League draft was almost new in all respects. For instance:

  • The name of the country was suggested as Federal Republic of Pakistan.
  • Two capitals Dhaka and Islamabad were named.
  • East Pakistan was to be renamed as Bangladesh and the NWFP as Pakhtunistan.
  • Headquarters of the armed forces were to be shifted to Dhaka.
  • Departments of foreign affairs, defence and currency were to stay with Centre while the rest with the provinces, and the Centre would take a share from provincial taxes.

The draft constitution was striking but no political leader openly reacted to it. General Yahya referred the offer to Bhutto, who rejected it.

The leadership of the PPP, which had been asked to respond to Mujib's offer, added that military action in East Pakistan was both necessary and unavoidable. Bhutto now openly sanctioned military action in place of compromise. He had got his way, and in the process had helped the military move from its initial toying with accommodation and mediation toward an uncompromising position.

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Postponement of National Assembly by General Yahya Khan

On 28 February 1971, Bhutto reiterated his decision not to attend the National Assembly session in Dhaka on 3 March 1971 if a meeting between him and Sheikh Mujib was not held before the session. He demanded that either the 120-day limit (within which the new assembly must form a new constitution or stand dissolved) for the National Assembly be removed or the opening session be postponed, declaring that if it was held on 3 March 1971 as planned, he'd launch a revolution "from Khyber to Karachi" (i.e. from north to south of Sind, West Pakistan). Previously, as General Yahya prepared to mediate the crisis, Bhutto hinted to the military that if the need arose he could make ruling West Pakistan difficult for them.

If you are going to talk about Bangla Desh we can talk about Sindh Desh and Punjab Desh.

Bhutto warns martial law government at a public rally

By alluding to 'Punjab Desh' Bhutto reminded the military that he had support in Punjab and could cause problem to them in their backyard if necessary. Bhutto's stubborn refusal to compromise appealed to hawkish elements in the military, and the meetings between him, General Yahya and the top command of the military at his home in Larkana in late January are reputed to have formalised a plan of action, although to the end Bhutto remained wary of a deal between Yahya Khan and Mujib.

Now, succumbing to the pressure, on 28 February 1971 - the same day Bhutto refused to attend the forthcoming National Assembly in Dhaka - General Yahya instructed East Pakistan's Governor Admiral Ahsan, General Rao Farman Ali (military adviser to East Pakistan government), and General Sahabzada Yaqub Khan (Martial Law Administrator in East Pakistan) to meet Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and inform him of the decision to postpone the seating of the National Assembly which was to take place in three days time. A livid and appalled Sheikh Mujib warned that he might lose control over the more zealous and radical members of his party.

General Yahya responded the next day (1 March 1971) by postponing the 3 March 1971 Assembly meeting sine die (i.e. indefinitely) to allow the two largest parties an opportunity for arriving at a consensus on some of the remaining constitutional issues. Governor Admiral Ahsan, one of the few moderates in Yahya's cabinet, resigned in protest instantly.

Once the convergence of interests between Bhutto and hard-line generals became a tacit alliance, Yahya Khan announced that the opening of the National Assembly would be postponed.

Brendan O'Leary, Ian S. Lustick & Thomas Callaghy, editors of "Right-sizing the State : The Politics of Moving Borders" (2001)

In these circumstances Yahya's gesture could not be seen as anything but an attempt to frustrate the popular will by colluding with Mr. Bhutto. The National Assembly was the only forum where Bangla Desh could assert its voice and political strength, and to frustrate this was a clear indication that Parliament was not to be the real source of power in Pakistan.

Muktadhara website

Yahya and his West Pakistani advisors had been confident that the constitution-writing process would be one of extensive give-and-take. With the actual result, however, it appeared that the charismatic Mujib would be able to push through a new constitution to his own liking, and to become Pakistan’s next Prime Minister as well.

Neither of these outcomes was acceptable to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He was a deeply ambitious man whose undoubted abilities were matched by his massive ego. After a day of talks with President J. F. Kennedy in 1963, Kennedy looked at Bhutto and said 'If you were American you would be in my cabinet'. 'Be careful, Mr. President,' Bhutto replied. 'If I were American you would be in my cabinet'.

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The day after his announcement, General Yahya, in a broadcast via Radio Pakistan, spelt out his rationale for postponing the National Assembly. Predictably, apart from alluding to Bhutto's concerns, he blamed India - the old enemy - for the delay.

The position briefly is that the major party of West Pakistan, namely the Pakistan People's Party, as well as certain other political parties, have declared their intention not to attend the National Assembly session on the 3 March 1971. In addition, the general situation of tension created by India has further complicated the whole position.

General Yahya broadcast to the nation on 2 March 1971

Nationwide hartal

Uproar during cricket match as postponement is announced

On 1 March 1971 a Test Cricket match was in progress at Dhaka Stadium (currently Bangabandhu National Stadium), located in the Motijheel area in the heart of the city. Pakistan was playing a 4-day cricket match against a Commonwealth XI (11). Today was the last day of the match. Ironically, it was the first full strength Pakistan team ever to include a Bengali, 18-year-old Raqibul Hasan, who opened for Pakistan with Azmat Rana. At 1pm Radio Pakistan announced in its news bulletin that President Yahya Khan had postponed the inaugural session of the National Assembly which was scheduled to meet in Dhaka two days later. No sooner had the announcement came on the air, people ransacked the stadium, brought the match to a premature close, and came out onto the streets with slogans in favour of independence. The reaction among Bengalis was one of outrage.

I firmly believe that Bangladesh was actually born on 1 March 1971 and not on the night between 25-26 March when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman formally announced it before being taken captive by the Pakistani authorities from his Dhanmondi residence in Dhaka.

...At lunch break, as we stepped out of the [Dhaka] stadium to pick up something to eat, we saw a crowd gathered around a pan shop and soon after we heard a sudden uproar. Radio Pakistan had just announced in its midday news bulletin that President Yahya Khan had postponed the inaugural session of the newly elected National Assembly which was to meet in Dhaka two days later. He had succumbed to the pressure from the politicians and the establishment in West Pakistan. With his 167 elected members (54%) out of a total of 313, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman understandably felt cheated and deprived of the fruits of the ballot. There was commotion, there was chaos and the match was called off.

Syed Anwar Mahmood, former Federal Secretary of Pakistan

The entire spectators watching the match joined the crowds on the streets and moved across to the nearby Purbani Hotel, led by Tofael Ahmed, the President of Awami League's students' wing called "Chhatra League" and the man who gave Sheikh Mujib the affectionate title of 'Bangabandhu' (Friend of Bengal). Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was in the hotel presiding over a session of the Awami League Council which were attended by his party colleagues. Emotionally charged and at times violent, tens of thousands of people assembled outside the hotel and chanted various anti-government slogans. They wanted to see their leader. Tofael Ahmed went in and brought out Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and demanded that Sheikh Mujib declare independence there and then. A grim and tense Sheikh Mujibur Rahman did not. He briefly addressed the crowd, protesting the postponement of parliamentary session and urging people to unite against the conspiracy, and went back in.

For the first time in Bengali history, slogans demanding independence for Bangladesh, the name Bangabandhu had already popularised for East Pakistan, were heard: "Bir Bangali ostro dhoro Bangladesh shwadhin koro" (Courageous Bengalis, take up arms and free Bangladesh" was a battle cry that came in tandem with others, for instance "Tomar amar thikana Padma Meghna Jamuna" (Your and my destination is the Padma, Meghna and Jamuna). Mujib and his lieutenants huddled to deliberate on a course of action. It would come soon.

Syed Badrul Ahsan, Journalist

'Swadhin Bangla Kendriya Chhatra Sangram Parishad' (Independent Bengal's Central Students Action Committee)

The postponement of the National Assembly came as a shattering disillusionment to the Awami League and their supporters throughout East Pakistan. It was seen as a betrayal and as proof of the authorities of the West Pakistan to deny them the fruits of their electoral victory. Sheikh Mujib, who had only two days earlier sent President Yahya the draft Constitution, left the negotiations empty-handed. The National Assembly was not convened, he got no concessions on his proposals, and his democratic right as the elected leader was denied. For the Awami League and the people of East Pakistan enough was enough. After years of silent grievances, the time was ready to stand up and be counted. The fight for Bangladesh had begun.

The postponement resulted in the outbreak of violence in East Pakistan. Crowds burned the Pakistan flag. Student leaders formed an apex action committee, the 'Swadhin Bangla Kendriya Chhatra Sangram Parishad' (Independent Bengal's Central Students Action Committee) with a view to providing collective leadership in the struggle for national independence.

Dhaka turned into a frenzied mob showing anguish and hatred. Even Sheikh Mujib's press conference at his Dhanmondi residence had become impossible as angry Awami League workers besieged the venue. The event was marked by pro-Bangladesh slogans. When the press conference was over the town had already been taken over by protesters who spared nothing. Arson, looting and all kinds of lawlessness ruled the city.

Dawn (Pakistan)

Strike commences in Dhaka on 2nd March and spreads countrywide the next day

The Awami League launched a seven-day non-cooperation movement, a nationwide strike (hartal), beginning on 2 March 1971 in Dhaka and then spreading to the rest of the country the following day on 3 March, the day originally proposed for the opening session of the new National Assembly. Sheikh Mujib ordered 'continuous strikes' - a daily shutdown from 7 am to 2 pm. In response, the Government of Pakistan order daily curfew in Dhaka from 8 pm to 7 am starting from the same day as the hartal (i.e. 2 March 1971).

Unable to bear injustice any longer, the Bengalis took to the streets to seek a solution for their continued oppression. Many were gunned down and left wounded by the Pakistani troops.

After the imposition of curfew in Dhaka on 2 March 1971, units of the Pakistan Army moved into the city and resorted to firing on the demonstrators. This caused some casualties, which further inflamed Bengali passions. The wounded were displayed at a public meeting addressed by Mujib. In his speech, he asked the army to go back to its barracks. In case the troops did not comply with this demand, he threatened that the people would have no alternative to offering resistance. The troops were promptly withdrawn by the well-meaning Lt. Gen. Sahabzada Yaqub Khan, who had been appointed Governor and Martial Law Administrator a little earlier. This was a clear demonstration of Mujib's power, derived from the people's mandate, against the repressive policies of West Pakistan's military dictatorship and was hailed as a popular victory.

Sukhwant Singh, author of "India's Wars Since Independence" (2009)

Every office, business-house and transportation system in East Pakistan were operating as per the directive of Bangabandhu (Sheikh Mujib) and his followers.

The Daily Star (Bangladesh)

On 3 March 1971, Sheikh Mujib called the whole thing a conspiracy and launched a civil disobedience campaign. He called upon the people to stop all communication systems and directed that nobody should pay any rent/taxes or cooperate with the anti-people government. He asked the people to resort to non-cooperation. He called upon the troops to return to their barracks and asked the martial law administrator to hand over power to the elected representatives of the people before 7 March 1971 when he would indicate the steps ahead.

If the conspirators still think they can perpetuate their colonial rule, they are living in a fool's paradise.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's damning assessment of West Pakistani anti-Bengali elite,